Carter in postcards

Angela Carter in postcards

Susannah Clapp, Angela Carter's literary executor, describes going through the writer's papers after her death, and shares the postcards that Carter sent her during their friendship, many of which related to her creative interests.

Angela Carter had one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century. On and off the page. Her work was gaudy, snarling, bold. ‘I’m all for pretension,’ she declared. Yet in person she often sounded soft, almost piping; sometimes like a parody of primness, sometimes skidding into casual south London. She punctuated her trenchant opinions with wheezes of laughter and long pauses. She could use silence like a weapon.

She is most celebrated for the richness and attack of her novels, and for her remaking of fairy tales. No one, she pointed out in a Woman’s Hour interview, could think that the Sleeping Beauty ‘was a figure full of get up and go’. I think she will also come to be seen as a great essayist. Working on the Croydon Advertiser after she had left school, she found in the newsdesk ‘a great source of baroque character’. Writing for New Society she wrote about clothes and zoos and Japanese erotica. From 1979 to 1992 she wrote for the London Review of Books, where I was working. She did not pull her punches, and her range was peerless. She delivered on the ANC, the history of the potato (‘that godless vegetable’) and the work of Collette. When in 1985 she reviewed an assortment of books about food and foodies, she tore into ‘piggery triumphant’, waste and snobbery: ‘this mincing and finicking obsession with food’. Furious letters to the paper accused her of ‘puritanical contempt’ and ‘self-righteous priggery’. Later that year Angela sent me a postcard from Austin Texas, showing a black cauldron, some bright red meat and a recipe for chilli. Her message ran: ‘Carter’s reply to her critics! Texas chili, it goes through you like a dose of salts. I would like to feed it to that drivelling wimp … preferably through his back passage’. Some prig.

‘The Alchemy of the Word’ and ‘Notes on the Gothic Mode’ by Angela Carter

‘The Alchemy of the Word’ and ‘Notes on the Gothic Mode’ by Angela Carter

An example of Angela Carter’s prolific essay writing and journalism: ‘The Alchemy of the Word’, her essay on Surrealism, clipped from Harper’s & Queen magazine, 1978.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

It was because of these reviews that we became friends. When, barely into her 50s, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and knew she would not recover, she asked me to be her literary executor. For all her wildness, Angela was organised. And she never stopped being bold, truthful and acerbic. 'Oh,' she said to a friend on the phone shortly after getting her prognosis,' there's someone coming to the front door. Don't worry. He's not carrying a scythe’.

Some weeks after her death I went into Angela’s study for the first time. It was unadorned and workmanlike, with a small wooden desk by the window. It was utterly unlike the rest of the house, which I knew quite well. Downstairs was carnival: true, there was a serious kitchen, but there were also violet and marigold walls, and scarlet paintwork. A kite hung from the ceiling of the sitting room, the shelves supported menageries of wooden animals, books were piled on chairs. Birds – one of them looking like a ginger wig and called Carrot Top – were released from their cages to whirl through the air, balefully watched through the window by the household's salivating cats. 'Free range,' said Angela. Of course I hoped to find an unfinished novel or a clutch of short stories. Of course, I knew such a find was unlikely. And so it proved. Angela's imagination was freewheeling, but her grip on her work was absolute. As was proved by the small red account book in which she noted in her clear upright handwriting all her fees and expenses.

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

One of the notebooks that can be found in Angela Carter’s archive. Divided into sections titled ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Hazard’, it contains meticulously recorded research and ideas for Wise Children.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

A battered grey filing cabinet held unfinished and rejected work. Here was a fragment of the opera she had started to make from Virginia Woolf's gender-bending, shape-shifting novel Orlando. Michael Berkeley was to have composed the music. Angela said she thought it should be set in the soft furnishings department of Marshall & Snelgrove. Here also was a treatment of the murder story on which Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures was based. Her longest theatrical project had been a version of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, commissioned by the National Theatre. Angela had long been fascinated by Wedekind’s heroine, and by Louise Brooks, who played her in the movies. She said: ‘Should I ever have a daughter I would call her not Simone, not even Rosa but Lulu’. She produced several drafts before the theatre finally abandoned the project. I remember running into her at a party, white-faced and furious: 'The National Theatre have just flushed my Lulu down the toilet'.

There were surprises. There were poems, which she had never mentioned. Written in the 1960s, and published in small magazines, they featured strong fairy tales, a salty version of William Dunbar’s ‘Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’, and a memorable sleek cat with ‘ears like spoons’. They were clear precursors to her fiction. There were also pictures. I knew she had drawn but I had not realised how much. Tucked in among the files were richly coloured crayon pictures: of flowers with great tongue-like petals, of slinking cats, and of her son Alexander, whose baby face with its bugle cheeks, dark curls and big black eyes looked like that of the West Wind on ancient maps; his mother described his face as being like a pearl.

She had told me that she kept journals and described the shape they took. They were partly working notes and partly casual jottings, roughly arranged so that the two kinds of entry were on opposite pages. They were stacked in the study: lined exercise books in which she had started to write during the 1960s and which covered nearly 30 years of her life. She decorated their covers as girls used to decorate their school books, with cut-out labels (the Player's cigarette sailor was one), paintings of cherubs and flowers and patterns of leaves. 

Inside, she described, in her not quite flowing hand 'a smoked gold day' in 1966, and in the same year made a list of different kinds of monkeys: rhesus, capuchin and lion-tailed. She wrote of the 'silver gilt light on Brandon Hill' in 1969, jotted down a recipe for soup using the balls of a cock and, in her later pages, took notes on Ellen Terry's lectures on Shakespeare. She made, again and again, lists of books and lists of films (Jean-Luc Godard featured frequently). She did not write down gossip (though she liked gossip), and wrote little about her friends. She specialised in lyrical natural description and in dark anecdote. She noted that the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had died of a burst bladder because he had not dared to get up from a banquet to have a pee. She observed that the pork pies favoured by her mother's family for wakes 'possess a semiotic connection with the corpse in the coffin – the meat in the pastry,’ and added, referring to Beatrix Potter's most chilling tale of fluffy life: ‘Tell that to Tom Kitten'. She wondered what smell Alexander would remember from his childhood home.

The most intriguing unfinished work was what Angela, thinking ‘synopsis’ too dreary a word, called an ‘advertisement’ for a novel. Adela: A Romance conjured up the life of Mr Rochester’s ward in Jane Eyre. In Angela’s version, she set out to seduce Rochester (actually, though she did not know it, her father) and was caught in the act by Jane Eyre, at which point she ran off to France. She found her French mother in a cabaret, ‘singing incendiary revolutionary song’. At the bottom of her typed A4 sheet Angela had added three lines of handwritten warning: ‘Adela is set in England and France in the 1860’s and 70’s and plays some tricks with history; JANE EYRE is set in the 1820’s, after all. But, then, it is a novel’. If only we had had a chance to read it.

As Angela put it, ‘the fin has come a little early this siècle’. Readers recognised this immediately: three days after she died, Virago sold out of her books. Friends and admirers started to write about her. She was not neglected during her lifetime but has become far more celebrated since her death. A few years ago I found I had a small collection of Angela material. There were a few browning letters, mostly written on exercise-book paper. There was a clockwork Russian doll made out of tin: a present from Angela and Mark. And there were a dozen or so postcards, dashed off throughout the 1980s from Australia, the States, Europe, London, sometimes with a full message, sometimes with little more than a signature. These cards told more than one story. The cartoons, paintings and photographs Angela chose sometimes contradicted, at other times re-emphasised her words on the other side. Some of the images glance at a conversation we had been having, or at an episode in Angela’s life. Sometimes, of course, the picture hints at nothing. Soon it will be harder to uncover the hidden history here, to know what is random and what is allusive. With this in mind, I gathered the pictures and messages, together with my own memories, into a short book, A Card from Angela Carter, on which I have drawn for this essay. Some extracts from this follow:

SIC

In 1988, four years before she died, Angela sent a Bard card from Canada. A glossy black product of the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival, it showed a cut-out of the playwright's face, high-domed and egg-like, resting on his ruff. The legend around him wildly signals facetiousness: in fluorescent yellow, neo-Renaissance palatine italics and an exclamation mark, it proclaims: ‘So I haven't written much lately! So what? Neither has Shakespeare'.

Postcards sent from Angela Carter to Susannah Clapp

Postcards sent from Angela Carter to Susannah Clapp

Postcard from the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival, sent from Angela Carter in 1988.

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At the time she sent this card, Angela was dreaming up Wise Children, her last novel, and her Shakespeare book, a buoyant wise-cracker about hoofing and singing twins. The idea of writing about twins was part of her tribute to the dramatist. Angela had set out intending to make some reference to all of his plays in Wise Children, but a few eluded her. Her favourite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was resplendently there, ‘a completely 20th-century great play,' she thought it; what had been delicious fantasy for the Victorians was ‘for us much more'. She replayed Lear's story twice, in male and female form; she planted two Falstaffs, one male and one female, and ‘a positive welter of late comedies, including a whole lot of Calibans wearing penis sheaths,’ but she had not managed to get in Titus Andronicus, unless a ferocious cook counts as a reference to the Roman's frightful pie: ‘Shakespeare's a bit of a vegetarian, good on fruit and veg, but rotten on meals,’ she said.

Manuscript notes and draft of Wise Children by Angela Carter

Manuscript notes and draft of Wise Children

Opening page from the first handwritten draft of Wise Children (undated).

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Angela Carter’s rough sketch of two versions of the Hazard family tree – ‘The Hazard’s Official Family Tree’ and ‘The real family tree’, from a notebook used for Wise Children.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

Shakespeare was part of the yeast not only of her prose but also of her plots. She read him ‘like a novel', regarding Measure for Measure as ‘a page-turner', and thought his stuff worked perfectly well without all that language: ‘people weep and gnash their teeth over Ophelia in Peru'. She favoured the bland lines that moved the plot on: ‘a ship has come from France'. She was dismissive of the routine idea that had he been alive now he would have been writing for television: he would more likely have been a used-car salesman.

FLICKERINGS

From Taorminain in 1987 she posted a picture of Etna exploding like a scarlet cock's crest, and a message full of delight. Angela loved Italian film – in fact, most film – and what she saw in Sicily could have come straight from the screen. Her sightings were buoyed up by her knowledge of old-time film stars: Rossano Brazzi had seduced his well-coiffed way through South Pacific and Three Coins in the Fountain. On the card she writes: ‘Rosanno [sic] Brazzi (remember him) & his wife bring their poodle to dinner everyday in a shopping bag because dogs are not allowed on the hotel terrace. The other day a gift-wrapped Alfa Romeo was delivered to a pair of honeymooning newlyweds. It’s fun. The boys are this moment in the sea, swimming. I sit on the terrace & contemplate my 3rd coffee'.

Postcards sent from Angela Carter to Susannah Clapp

Postcards sent from Angela Carter to Susannah Clapp

Postcard of the volcano, Mt Etna, sent from Angela Carter in 1987.

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Up for ‘anything that flickers,' Angela had enjoyable brief encounters with celluloid during the 1980s in The Company of Wolves and The Magic Toyshop. In the screenplays that languished unproduced in her filing cabinet, the literary tangoed with the explosively popular. A cowboy morality play, 'Gun for the Devil', paid tribute, in the name of the character Roxana, to Daniel Defoe. She plunged into Hollywood when in Albany, Upper New York State, toiling in the film section of the university and coming home laden with biographies ‘with titles like “Too Late for Tears” or “Mascara in My Martini”’. Out of this research came great swathes of her last novel.

Photographs from The Company of Wolves, a film by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter

Photographs from The Company of Wolves, a film by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter

Scene from The Company of Wolves, 1984, which layered several tales from Carter’s 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories including ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘The Werewolf’.

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Wise Children was her London book, but also her film book and her father’s book. There is autobiography embedded here, though not of a literal kind. Dads and movies went together for Angela, whose own father took her as a youngster to whatever was showing at the Granada, Tooting Bec. She was grateful that this led to her exposure to a host of ‘unsuitable’ films: the first she remembered, apart from Snow White, was The Blue Lagoon, which had Jean Simmons flat on her back on the sand to the sound of waves. Angela remembered herself as being six when she saw it, though she must have been nine.

Manuscript notes about Tooting Granada cinema by Angela Carter

Manuscript notes about Tooting Granada cinema by Angela Carter

‘I held my breath in the gallery of mirrors – anything might materialise in those velvet depths, monsters, beauties, my own grown self’: Carter’s recollections of visiting the Granada cinema in Tooting as a child.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

It was not the movies alone that mattered in these excursions: the 1930s super-cinema itself, ‘one of the most beautiful, beautiful buildings in the world', was a dizzy delight and a revelation. An homage to the Alhambra, it had a Hall of Mirrors upstairs and a cyclorama, with the night sky projected on the ceiling of the upper gallery. It had a curved roof, huge murals, a marble staircase and amber mirrors. What transfixed Angela was its ‘very, very difficult mix of real craftspersonship, real marble and fake marble... You never quite know what's what until you touch it. The stairs are real, fabulous marble, but the pillars are painted plaster'. As a child she ‘took it for real. It's a masterpiece of kitsch, but in a hundred years' time no one's going to be able to tell that it's kitsch’.

Angela wrote about mimicry and imitation; her prose ducked and dived between the genuine and the ersatz. Those early visits to the Granada gave her subject matter and style. They were a gift from her dad.

VILE

At the end of 1987 she sent Christmas and New Year wishes from her and Mark and ‘a very spotty Alex – he's just come down with chicken pox’. The card had two sets of red line drawings: a ‘For Her’ section showed a couple of jewel-encrusted rings, a sports car and a speedboat; the ‘For Him' section was strewn with plaid slippers, a stag, a pair of binoculars and a crown. Actually, the Crown. The picture shows tinted photographs of Prince Charles and Lady Diana back to back under the headline ‘All I want for Christmas is...’ Diana's answer is ‘A divorce'; Charles's clenched-jaw response runs: ‘I wasn't thinking of anything that expensive’.

Postcards sent from Angela Carter to Susannah Clapp

Postcards sent from Angela Carter to Susannah Clapp

Postcard portraying Prince Charles and Lady Diana, sent from Angela Carter in 1987.

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The royal family afforded Angela the pleasure of rolling-eyed ridicule. She liked to put it about that the Queen had a secret black love-child, claiming that you could see the gleam in the monarch's eye when she was surrounded by Commonwealth heads of state. Angela would have manned the barricades at a revolution, but she kept her vitriol for those who were politically active. A birthday card – bearing her instruction to open ‘wide, but carefully' showed her enlisting royal support against a greater grisliness. The picture on the front displays the Queen, in full tasselled, ermined regalia, with Windsor Castle in the background and a speech bubble floating over a plush curtain: ‘I see London, I see France...’ On sliding open, the panels making up the royal image reform to reveal the then PM, in purple bra, orange boxers (with football motif), high-heeled pom-pom mules and a string of pearls. She is hoovering in front of the telly; above her a gloating comment rhymes with the one overleaf. ‘I see Maggie in her UNDERPANTS!’

It is hard to exaggerate the visceral anti-Thatcherism of the 1980s. The complaints, often focussing on Thatcher's voice, were tainted with misogyny (has any vehement male politician ever been accused of shrillness?); often they were polluted with snobbery (Thatcher sounded ‘suburban'). Angela never held back on abuse of politicians; at the time of the outbreak of the Gulf War the message she left on my answering machine was simply a string of oaths. She did not hold back about Thatcher: ‘I think that no fate is too vile for her,’ she said after the introduction of an internal market in the National Health Service. Yet her real political anxiety was wide-reaching, and prescient: ‘The worst things are probably things we don't know about. They’re to do with surveillance and they're to do with the Secret Service, and they’re to do with the inaccessibility of information ... I imagine that this has been a period of such incredible overwhelming public corruption that it will take years and years before we know about it'.

Susannah Clapp is the theatre critic of the Observer. Her book ‘A Card from Angela Carter’ is published by Bloomsbury.

  • Susannah Clapp
  • Susannah Clapp is the theatre critic of the Observer. She is the author of With Chatwin and A Card from Angela Carter and a regular broadcaster.

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